Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.


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E.g., 06/27/2024
E.g., 06/27/2024

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision granting defendant a new trial because the trial court declined to provide his requested jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter.

In 2018, defendant met his wife at a motel in Raleigh known for drug use and illegal activity; both defendant and his wife were known to be heavy drug users, and defendant’s wife had just been released from the hospital after an overdose that resulted in an injury to the back of her head. After a night of apparent drug use, defendant fled the motel for Wilmington, and defendant’s wife was found dead in the room they occupied. An autopsy found blunt force trauma to her face, head, neck, and extremities, missing and broken teeth, atherosclerosis of her heart, and cocaine metabolites and fentanyl in her system. Defendant conceded that he assaulted his wife during closing arguments. Defense counsel requested jury instructions on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, including involuntary manslaughter under a theory of negligent omission, arguing that the victim may have died from defendant’s failure to render or obtain aid for her after an overdose. The trial court did not provide instructions on either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, over defense counsel’s objections.

On appeal, the Supreme Court considered the issues raised by the Court of Appeals dissent, (1) whether the trial court committed error by failing to provide an instruction on involuntary manslaughter, and (2) did any error represent prejudice “in light of the jury’s finding that defendant’s offense was ‘especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.’” Slip Op. at 15. The court found that (1) the trial court erred because a juror could conclude “defendant had acted with culpable negligence in assaulting his wife and leaving her behind while she suffered a drug overdose or heart attack that was at least partially exacerbated by his actions, but that it was done without malice.” Id. at 21. Exploring (2), the court explained “where a jury convicts a criminal defendant of second-degree murder in the absence of an instruction on a lesser included offense, appellate courts are not permitted to infer that there is no reasonable possibility that the jury would have convicted the defendant of the lesser included offense on the basis of that conviction.” Id. at 22, citing State v. Thacker, 281 N.C. 447 (1972). The court did not find the “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating factor dispositive, as it noted “finding that a criminal defendant committed a homicide offense in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel way does not require a finding that he acted with malice in bringing about his victim’s death.” Id. at 24. Instead, the court found prejudicial error in the lack of involuntary manslaughter instruction.

Justice Berger, joined by Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer, dissented and would have upheld defendant’s conviction for second-degree murder. Id. at 27.

In this New Hanover County case, defendant appealed after being found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, arguing (1) the indictment for attempted first-degree murder failed to include an essential element of the offense, (2) error in denying his motion to dismiss one of the attempted murder charges, and (3) error in admitting evidence of past acts of violence and abuse against two former romantic partners. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In August of 2014, after defendant assaulted his girlfriend, a protective order was granted against him. On December 22, 2014, defendant tried to reconcile with his girlfriend, but she refused; the girlfriend went to the house of a friend and stayed with her for protection. Early the next morning, defendant tried to obtain a gun from an acquaintance, and when that failed, he purchased a gas can and filled it with gas. Using the gas can, defendant set fires at the front entrance and back door of the home where his girlfriend was staying. Five people were inside when defendant set the fires, and two were killed by the effects of the flames. Defendant was indicted for first-degree arson, two counts of first-degree murder, and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and was convicted on all counts (the trial court arrested judgment on the arson charge).

Examining issue (1), the Court of Appeals explained that “with malice aforethought” was represented in the indictment by “the specific facts from which malice is shown, by ‘unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously . . . setting the residence occupied by the victim(s) on fire.’” Slip Op. at 10. Because the ultimate facts constituting each element of attempted first-degree murder were present in the indictment, the lack of “with malice” language did not render the indictment flawed.

Considering defendant’s argument (2), that he did not have specific intent to kill one of the victims because she was a family member visiting from Raleigh, the court found that the doctrine of transferred intent supported his conviction. Under the doctrine, “[t]he actor’s conduct toward the victim is ‘interpreted with reference to his intent and conduct towards his adversary[,]’ and criminal liability for the third party’s death is determined ‘as [if] the fatal act had caused the death of [the intended victim].’” Id. at 12, quoting State v. Locklear, 331 N.C. 239 (1992). Here defendant was attempting to kill his girlfriend, and the intent transferred to the other victims inside the home at the time he set the fires.

Considering (3) the admission of several prior acts of violence by defendant towards his girlfriend and another romantic partner, the court first determined the evidence was relevant under Rules of Evidence 401 and 402, and conducted an analysis under Rule 404(b), finding the evidence tended to show intent, motive, malice, premeditation, and deliberation. The court then looked for abuse of discretion by the trial court under the Rule 403 standard, finding that the admission of the relevant evidence did not represent error.

In this murder case where the trial court submitted jury instructions on both second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the second-degree murder charge. The defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence that he acted with malice and not in self-defense. The court noted that any discrepancy between the State’s evidence and the defendant’s testimony was for the jury to resolve.

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a second-degree murder charge where there was insufficient evidence of malice and the evidence showed that the death resulted from a mishap with a gun. The court remanded for entry of judgment for involuntary manslaughter.

In a second-degree murder case arising after the defendant drove impaired and hit and killed two bicyclists, there was sufficient evidence of malice. The defendant’s former girlfriend previously warned him of the dangers of drinking and driving; the defendant’s prior incident of drinking and driving on the same road led the girlfriend to panic and fear for her life; the defendant's blood alcohol level was .16; the defendant consumed an illegal controlled substance that he knew was impairing; the defendant swerved off the road three times prior to the collision, giving him defendant notice that he was driving dangerously; despite this, the defendant failed to watch the road and made a phone call immediately before the collision; the defendant failed to apply his brakes before or after the collision; and the defendant failed to call 911 or provide aid to the victims.

In a second-degree murder case stemming from a vehicle accident, there was sufficient evidence of malice. The defendant knowingly drove without a license, having been cited twice for that offense in the three weeks prior to the accident. When the original driver wanted to pull over for the police, the defendant took control of the vehicle by climbing over the back seat and without stopping the vehicle. He was attempting to evade the police because of a large volume of shoplifted items in his vehicle and while traveling well in excess of the speed limit. He crossed a yellow line to pass vehicles, twice passed vehicles using a turn lane, drove through a mowed corn field and a ditch, and again crossed the center line to collide with another vehicle while traveling 66 mph and without having applied his brakes. To avoid arrest, the defendant repeatedly struck an injured passenger as he tried to get out of the vehicle and escape.

In a case in which a second officer got into a vehicular accident and died while responding to a first officer’s communication about the defendant’s flight from a lawful stop, the evidence was sufficient to establish malice for purposes of second-degree murder. The defendant’s intentional flight from the first officer–including driving 65 mph in a residential area with a speed limit of 25 mph and throwing bags of marijuana out of the vehicle–reflected knowledge that injury or death would likely result and manifested depravity of mind and disregard of human life.

There was sufficient evidence of malice to support a second-degree murder conviction. Based on expert testimony the jury could reasonably conclude that the child victim did not die from preexisting medical conditions or from a fall. The jury could find that while the victim was in the defendant’s sole custody, he suffered non-accidental injuries to the head with acute brain injury due to blunt force trauma of the head. The evidence would permit a finding that the victim suffered a minimum of four impacts to the head, most likely due to his head being slammed into some type of soft object. Combined with evidence that the defendant bit the victim, was upset about the victim’s mother’s relationship with the victim’s father, and that the defendant resented the victim, the jury could find that the defendant intentionally attacked the month-old child, resulting in his death.

There was sufficient evidence of malice to sustain a second-degree murder conviction. Because there was evidence that the defendant killed the victim with a deadly weapon, the jury could infer that the killing was done with malice. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his statements that he and the victim “had words or something” provided evidence of provocation sufficient to negate the malice presumed from the use of a deadly weapon or require a voluntary manslaughter instruction.

There was sufficient evidence of malice in a case arising from a vehicle accident involving impairment. The defendant admitted that he drank 4 beers prior to driving. The State’s expert calculated his blood alcohol level to be 0.08 at the time of the collision and other witnesses testified that the defendant was impaired. Evidence showed that he ingested cocaine and that the effects of cocaine are correlated with high-risk driving. The defendant admitted that he was speeding, and experts calculated his speed to be approximately 15 mph over the posted speed limit. The State also introduced evidence that the defendant had 4 prior driving while impaired convictions.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of second-degree murder. The defendant, after being kicked in the face in a fight inside a nightclub, became angry about his injury, retrieved a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and loaded magazine from his car, and loaded the gun, exclaiming "Fuck it. Who wants some?" He then began firing toward the crowd, killing an officer. Evidence of the intentional use of a deadly weapon — here, a semi-automatic handgun — that proximately causes death triggers a presumption that the killing was done with malice. This presumption is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss a second-degree murder charge. The issue of whether the evidence is sufficient to rebut the presumption of malice in a homicide with a deadly weapon is then a jury question.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss charges of second-degree murder, felony serious injury by vehicle, and impaired driving. The evidence showed that the defendant was under the influence of an impairing substance at the time of the accident. A chemical analysis of blood taken from the defendant after the accident showed a BAC of 0.14 and the State’s expert estimated that his BAC was 0.19 at the time of the accident. The defendant admitted having consumed 5 or 6 beers that day. Four witnesses testified that they detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the defendant immediately after the accident. The defendant had bloodshot eyes and was combative with emergency personnel immediately after the accident. Finally, the defendant’s speed exceeded 100 miles per hour and he failed to use his brakes or make any attempt to avoid the collision.

There was sufficient evidence to survive a motion to dismiss in a case in which the defendant was charged with second-degree murder under G.S. 14-17 for having a proximately caused a murder by the unlawful distribution and ingestion of Oxymorphone. There was sufficient evidence of malice where the victim and a friend approached the defendant to purchase prescription medication, the defendant sold them an Oxymorphone pill for $20.00, telling them that it was “pretty strong pain medication[,]” and not to take a whole pill or “do anything destructive with it.” The defendant also told a friend that he liked Oxymorphone because it “messe[d]” him up. The jury could have reasonably inferred that the defendant knew Oxymorphone was an inherently dangerous drug and that he acted with malice when he supplied the pill.

There was sufficient evidence of malice in a first-degree murder case. The intentional use of a deadly weapon which proximately results in death gives rise to the presumption of malice. Here, the victim was stabbed in the torso with a golf club shaft, which entered the body from the back near the base of her neck downward and forward toward the center of her chest to a depth of eight inches, where it perforated her aorta just above her heart; she was stabbed with a knife to a depth of three inches; her face sustained blunt force trauma consistent with being struck with a clothes iron; and there was evidence she was strangled. The perforation by the golf club shaft was fatal.

State v. Mack, 206 N.C. App. 512 (Aug. 17, 2010)

There was sufficient evidence of malice in a second-degree murder case involving a vehicle accident. The defendant, whose license was revoked, drove extremely dangerously in order to evade arrest for breaking and entering and larceny. When an officer attempted to stop the defendant, he fled, driving more than 90 miles per hour, running a red light, and traveling the wrong way on a highway — all with the vehicle's trunk open and with a passenger pinned by a large television and unable to exit the vehicle.

There was sufficient evidence of malice to support a second-degree murder conviction in a case where the defendant ran over a four-year-old child. When she hit the victim, the defendant was angry and not exhibiting self-control; the defendant’s vehicle created “acceleration marks” and was operating properly; the defendant had an “evil look”; and the yard was dark, several small children were present, and the defendant did not know where the children were when she started her car.

There was sufficient evidence of malice to sustain a second-degree murder conviction where the defendant drove recklessly, drank alcohol before and while operating a motor vehicle, had prior convictions for impaired driving and driving while license revoked, and fled and engaged in elusive behavior after the accident.

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